May/June 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 4

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Looking forward to the 2013 Annual Meeting

Williamsburg, Brooklyn:
Capital of Cool

Sharon Zukin, Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Half a century ago, Brooklyn was the borough of New York City where tight-knit communities of second-generation Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Scandinavian immigrants hunkered down in waterfront neighborhoods against the forces of postwar change.

Map of Brooklyn neighborhoods, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_neighborhoods_map.png

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They confronted the arrival of container shipping, which effectively closed down the port where so many had worked, and the removal of factories and outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, first to cheaper areas in New Jersey and then overseas. They also contended with the arrival of new African American migrants from southern states and Spanish-speaking families from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, who made the borough an even more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural living space, though not without arousing hostility and violence.

During the 1960s and 1970s, many Brooklynites moved east to newly developed areas of Queens and the suburbs of Long Island, while others moved across the water to Staten Island and the suburbs of New Jersey. The borough had always taken second place to Manhattan as the center of metropolitan commerce and celebrity. And the defection of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1957 symbolized a collective sense of departure and loss.

Early Hipster Invasion

Since the 1980s, however, Brooklyn residents have awakened to a stunning reversal. Neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, with their rich supply of distinctive brownstone townhouses, became highly desirable residential locations (see map on page 1). And neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick, with dilapidated factories and warehouses, were transformed into artists’ districts. To everyone’s surprise, Brooklyn became the epitome of cool.

bliss bakery

Bliss Bakery, Bedford Avenue.
Photo: Sharon Zukin.

Williamsburg is the borough’s earliest example of “gentrification by hipster.” During the 1980s, rising prices for SoHo lofts and East Village apartments drove many practicing artists and new art-school graduates to look for live–work space across the East River. Easily accessible from the Northside of Williamsburg attracted visual artists, musicians, and creative entrepreneurs followed by art critics, journalists, and eventually travel bloggers. Informal, and also illegal, party spaces spawned “alternative” art galleries, cafés, restaurants, and bars, which took root among Polish bakeries, Hispanic bodegas, and other small businesses catering to the area’s two major immigrant communities (see photo, Bliss Bakery, Bedford Avenue).

Artists and Young People

While Galapagos Art Space on North 6th Street hosted performances by mixed-media artists, a growing number of alt-rock bands played in other nearby bars. This created a mutually-reinforcing reputation for DIYers (do it yourself) and alternative culture that brought visitors to the neighborhood and audiences to the bands.

Two early artisanal start-ups, Brooklyn Brewery on North 11th Street (brooklynbrewery.com) and Brooklyn Industries on North 8th Street and Bedford Avenue. The Brewery, founded in 1987 by two Brooklynites, moved to a converted factory in Williamsburg in 1996.  And Industries created a local, and gradually a global, market for their small-scale production of clothing and messenger bags, together making Williamsburg a “scene” and Brooklyn a “brand.”

These synergies became more intense with the rapid growth of social media. In the early 2000s, 11211 Magazine, The L Magazine, and the blog www.freewilliamsburg.com published news of interest to the local hipster community and promoted local bars, festivals, and cultural events. On weekend nights, the main commercial street of Bedford Avenue was filled with young men and women in their 20s, sporting piercings, tattoos, and porkpie hats.

new waterfront construction

New waterfront construction, 2009.
Photo: Sharon Zukin
.

High Rises and Increasing Rent

Two events in 2005 mark the high point of the area’s hipster gentrification era. On the one hand, summer rock concerts in the empty concrete shell of the swimming pool in McCarren Park drew enormous crowds of young people (www.mccarrenpark.com). In 2012, the pool reopened. On the other hand, abandoned and half-empty industrial buildings on the East River drew the interest of real estate developers and the city planning commission, which rezoned the waterfront for high-rise, residential development.

Alongside both legal and illegal conversions of “inland” factories to living lofts, new apartment houses on the waterfront soon made finding a home in Williamsburg a more expensive proposition (see photo, New Waterfront Construction). Under the onslaught of rising rents, most Hispanic and older Polish residents had already moved away.

After 2005, hipsters migrated out, many moving eastward along the L subway line to East Williamsburg and Bushwick. Other residents moved northward to Greenpoint, also a neighborhood where aging Polish residents owned homes. The Galapagos Art Space, which faced a rent increase of 30 percent, accepted a deal from the development firm which owns most of the properties in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), a bit to the south, and moved from Williamsburg in 2007 (www.galapagosartspace.com/).

New vs. Old

everyday diversity bakery

Everyday diversity, North 7th Street and Bedford Avenue. Photo: Sharon Zukin.

This brief account makes gentrification seem a tidier package than it really has been. Only with hindsight do Williamsburg’s high property values appear inevitable. For many years following the city’s fiscal crisis of 1975–76 the neighborhood was neglected by public authorities. Firehouses closed for lack of funds, small factories and metalworking shops lacked official support, unemployment and asthma rates rose. Besides brownfield sites that need environmental cleansing, both Williamsburg and Greenpoint house a large number of waste facilities. Low-income cultural producers and students compete for housing and the city government’s support against Hispanic and Hasidic Jewish constituencies (see photo, Everyday Diversity).

Longtime residents have struggled to make improvements. During the 1980s and 1990s, Latinos on the area’s Southside organized to develop low-rent housing and opened a community school, El Puente Academy, near the access road to the Williamsburg Bridge. Residents of the Northside created a “197-a” community plan that prioritized removing environmental hazards, building affordable housing, and maintaining industrial jobs. Although the city council endorsed this plan in the early 2000s, its goals were negated by the 2005 rezoning of the waterfront and resulting new development.

Complex negotiations between community groups, the city government, and real estate developers created a system of inclusionary zoning rules that mandates a fixed percentage of “affordable” apartments in new, multi-unit housing. But this system depends on the developers’ voluntary acceptance, and they exact concessions in return from the city government. Often concessions take the form of permission to build taller buildings, with more rentable units, than zoning allows. Moreover, the formula to calculate “affordable” rents is based on median household incomes in the metropolitan region, which are often higher than those in the city and in the neighborhood.

The financial crisis that began in 2006 halted construction on many sites. Yet by 2013, $2 and $3 million sales of palatial penthouse lofts in Williamsburg were not uncommon. For a price of $185 million, ownership of the former Domino Sugar refinery on the Southside waterfront passed from a firm specializing in “affordable” housing to the developer who owns most of DUMBO. Their plans now project tall buildings for both apartments and “creative” offices, cutting-edge architecture—literally since the design features a large cutout in the middle of the structure—and lots of green space for public access in a waterfront park.

Williamsburg is still a community in both ferment and formation. Restaurants feature locavore produce, artisanal production, and “nose-to-tail” carnivorous cuisine prepared by exciting young chefs. Summer brings open-air alt-rock concerts in the waterfront park at North 12th Street and walks along the waterfront esplanade. For now, the vacant lot at the Domino Sugar refinery will be an urban farm.

And for those who want a more “authentic” location…they can follow the hipsters eastward to the Morgan Avenue station of the L line in Bushwick, where art galleries and organic food shops have taken root amid a majority Latino and minority African American population.

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